BT disables next-gen phones to counter London drugs gangs crisis
Image credit: Justin Cormack (Justinc) on Wikimedia Commons
British Telecom has barred calls from its futuristic InLink phone kiosks to stop them being used by drugs gangs blamed for London's violent crime wave.
The telco will disable free calls to mobile phones from its kiosks in London’s most deprived borough, Tower Hamlets, where the Metropolitan Police has concentrated efforts against gangs who were using InLinks to sell crack and heroin.
InLink UK, the phone business unit, capitulated to pressure from council leaders and London's Metropolitan Police after six months of talks in which it had refused their requests to stop giving people free calls.
Tower Hamlets mayor John Biggs, and Will Tuckley, its chief executive, brought InLink managers face to face with senior police officers on 30 October, as the crime wave reached a peak of desperation.
“The purpose was, how are we going to resolve the problem we were having with these devices. We agreed the situation had come to a point where the free calls had to be switched off,” said Sgt. Lucy, a Met police officer who was at the meeting.
Detective chief inspector Mike Hamer, the Met's lead officer for gangs and drugs crime, presented InLink general manager Matt Burgess with evidence that people were still routinely using the kiosks to do drug deals. It was only three months since 24 people were imprisoned after a major operation Hamer’s team had launched against gangs using the kiosks.
Murders and stabbings, provoked by drugs gangs, had reached such a height of intensity that within days of the meeting Met chiefs had arranged to put hundreds more officers on the beat and the Home Office announced a £17m scheme to entice young men away from crime.
According to a letter InLink UK sent to Tower Hamlets officials after the meeting, a copy of which has been obtained by E&T, it agreed to disable its kiosks in collaboration with the Met’s increase in police numbers and a council initiative to deploy more drugs outreach workers as well.
“In our discussions with the council and the police it was suggested that the ability to call mobile phones for free could be a key factor in some of the anti-social behaviour that has been reported,” said the letter, from Michelle Warbis, InLink UK’s external affairs manager, who attended the meeting.
“Therefore, as part of our continued efforts to better serve the communities in which we operate, from December 6th 2018 it will no longer be possible to make free phone calls to mobile phones from all of the InLinks in Tower Hamlets,” she said.
Jonathan Moberly, chair of a Tower Hamlets residents action group, said BT had claimed there was no evidence its kiosks were used by drug dealers. But it changed its mind after evidence he gathered was presented to the meeting, including photographs and a police statement.
“BT’s attitude to community concerns has been appallingly arrogant,” he told E&T.
His statement said the kiosks had caused a huge increase in crime and anti-social behaviour, with drug dealers making deliveries to kiosks from speeding cars and addicts in such desperation to get a fix that he had seen them shove aside a mother with her pram.
“In December last year, my stepson was a victim of a hit and run by one of these drug-dealing cars. His ankle was smashed and he will never fully recover. Our whole neighbourhood is now plagued. The InLink boxes only serve to facilitate this,” said his statement.
“[They] are having a distressing effect on the community. BT has been completely unsympathetic and conveys a lack of desire to even begin to understand the problem these units are causing us,” it said.
Karen Proudfoot, head of communities and enforcement at Tower Hamlets council, whose CCTV evidence had prompted police and council officials to refuse BT permission to install any more InLink kiosks, said InLink’s claims to social responsibility had forced it to act.
“We sat down with them and made it clear, ‘You’ve introduced these facilities because they are supposed to be a community resource and beneficial, but actually they’re not. It is having completely the opposite effect,” said Proudfoot.
She said the kiosks had not caused anti-social behaviour, they had merely become a focus for it, and that had even helped because they provided a focus for the borough’s drugs outreach workers as well.
“When you have a concentrated number of people in one area it makes it appear there’s a bigger problem than there really is,” she said. “[But] we still didn’t want to do anything to help drug dealers ply their trade.”
The InLink kiosks were used widely across the borough by all sorts of people and not just addicts in troubled areas. Those at the meeting said InLink UK had been keen to help resolve the problem. Its kiosks were originally designed to help solve social problems. The first thing people see when they use an InLink touchscreen interface to make a phone call is a list of options to charitable and public services, including Childline, End Youth Homelessness, Runaway Helpline and the Samaritans.
Councillor John Pierce, who represents people in Weavers ward, an area of high-rise housing estates where local residents have campaigned against the kiosks, said their use by drug dealers “causes a whole lot of anti-social behaviour in the community”.
“The council and residents have a very strong view. This has continued to be a real issue. People who are on the streets, soliciting drugs and causing anti-social behaviour by shouting and disrupting in various ways.
“This is an issue because there is persistent drug dealing locally and that has been aided through the arrival of these InLink phone booths, which offer free calls,” he said.
InLink UK refused to comment. Tower Hamlets and Metropolitan Police official channels did not comment. Sgt. Lucy said BT, Tower Hamlets and Metropolitan Police were agreeing a formal statement together, which they would issue tomorrow, the day upon which InLink would switch the phones off. He was therefore not in a position to say precisely why the Met wanted the phones switched off, even though it was blatant. Press officials in other boroughs likewise declined to comment.
InLink UK is jointly-owned by BT, outdoor advertising firm Primesight and the same firm that owns Google. Moberly said he had also raised concerns whether InLink’s association to Google was a threat to people’s privacy and he suspected BT was more concerned with making money for its Silicon Valley business partner than addressing community issues.
BT has attracted widespread suspicion that its devices are designed more as tools of surveillance than communication, for their association with advertising companies that make money by tracking people’s behaviour and because the devices are designed to carry CCTV cameras.